If Fifty Million People Say a Foolish Thing, It Is Still a Foolish Thing

Anatole France? Bertrand Russell? W. Somerset Maugham? Oliver Goldsmith? J. A. Schmit? Laurence J. Peter? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Fifty million people may parrot a false or foolish statement, but that will not metamorphose it into a true or sensible remark. Here are two instances in this family of statements:

  • If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.
  • If forty million people say a foolish thing, it does not become a wise one

This saying has been attributed to French Nobel Prize-Winning author Anatole France, British philosopher Bertrand Russell, and English novelist W. Somerset Maugham. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: A semantically similar remark was penned by novelist Oliver Goldsmith in “The Vicar of Wakefield” in 1766. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

. . . the united voice of myriads cannot lend the smallest foundation to falsehood.

A separate QI article about the expression above is available here.

In 1874 another semantic match appeared in an article by J. A. Schmit published in the “Revue Catholique” of Louvain, Belgium. Here is the original statement in French followed by one possible translation into English: 2

. . . la vérité est qu’une sottise, même après avoir passé par un million de bouches, n’en reste pas moins une sottise.

. . . the truth is that a stupidity, even after having passed through a million mouths, does not become less foolish.

In 1890 an article in a journal of the Theosophical Publishing Company in London contained a related observation: 3

. . . the fact remains that if a million people believe a thing, it neither makes it true nor false. What right, then, have we to found anything on an assumption?

In 1900 Anatole France printed a germane remark about foolishness within a piece in “Le Figaro” newspaper of Paris. 4 The piece was part of his novel titled “Monsieur Bergeret à Paris” which was published during the following year: 5 The crucial remark was spoken by a character named Henri Léon who was unhappy with the prevalence of foolishness, but he seemed resigned to its presence. Here is the original French followed by a translation:

Et si nous ne sommes pas bêtes, il faut faire comme si nous l’étions. C’est encore la bêtise qui réussit le mieux en ce monde. Les hommes d’esprit sont des sots. Ils n’arrivent à rien.

And if we are not stupid, we must act as if we are. It is still foolishness that succeeds the best in this world. Intelligent men are fools. They are not getting anywhere.

In 1901 W. Somerset Maugham penned a close match to the saying under examination in one of his personal notebooks: 6

If forty million people say a foolish thing it does not become a wise one, but the wise man is foolish to give them the lie.

The phrase “to give them the lie” here means “to show them that the foolish thing is inaccurate or untrue”. Maugham’s 1901 remark was published in 1949 many years after it was written.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading If Fifty Million People Say a Foolish Thing, It Is Still a Foolish Thing

Notes:

  1. 1766, The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith, Part 2 of 2, Chapter 8, Quote Page 121, Printed by B. Collins for F. Newbery, London. (Eighteenth Century Collections Online ECCO) link
  2. 1874, Revue Catholique, Volume 37, La Dogmatique Révolutionnaire by J. A. Schmit, Start Page 513, Quote Page 525, Aux Bureaux De La Revue, Louvain, Belgium. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1890 February 15, Lucifer: A Theosophical Magazine, Volume 5, Number 30, Edited H. P. Blavatsky & Annie Besant, Metaphor by Charles E. Benham, Start Page 505, Quote Page 508, The Theosophical Publishing Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1900 July 11, Le Figaro, Histoire Contemporaine: Chez la Baronne by Anatole France, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Paris, France. (Gallica BNF Bibliothèque nationale de France)
  5. 1901, Histoire contemporaine: Monsieur Bergeret à Paris by Anatole France, Quote Page 366, Calmann Levy, Paris, France. (Gallica BNF Bibliothèque nationale de France)
  6. 1949, A Writer’s Notebook by W. Somerset Maugham, Year: 1901, Quote Page 76, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)

The United Voice of Myriads Cannot Lend the Smallest Foundation To Falsehood

Oliver Goldsmith? H. L. Mencken? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: In the Internet Age a falsehood is sometimes repeated incessantly and propagated across the world. Yet, the collective voice of one million people cannot transform a falsehood into a truth. This insight has a long history. The prominent Anglo-Irish novelist and playwright Oliver Goldsmith said something like this in the 1700s. Would you please help me to find a citation.

Quote Investigator: In 1766 Oliver Goldsmith published the novel “The Vicar of Wakefield” which contained the following statement. Boldface added to excerpts: 1

. . . the united voice of myriads cannot lend the smallest foundation to falsehood.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The United Voice of Myriads Cannot Lend the Smallest Foundation To Falsehood

Notes:

  1. 1766, The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith, Part 2 of 2, Chapter 8, Quote Page 121, Printed by B. Collins for F. Newbery, London. (Eighteenth Century Collections Online ECCO) link

Our Greatest Glory Is Not in Never Falling, But in Rising Every Time We Fall

Confucius? Nelson Mandela? Vince Lombardi? Oliver Goldsmith? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Christian Nestell Bovee?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following adage about motivation and perseverance has been attributed to an oddly eclectic group: Chinese philosopher Confucius, football coach Vince Lombardi, activist politician Nelson Mandela, Irish author Oliver Goldsmith, and transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. Here are four versions. The fourth uses “failing” instead of “falling”:

1) The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.

2) The greatest accomplishment is not in never falling, but in rising again after you fall.

3) Our greatest strength lies not in never having fallen, but in rising every time we fall.

4) Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.

I have no idea if any of these ascriptions is correct because I have not seen any documentation listing a source. Would you please help me with this frustrating situation?

Quote Investigator: In 1760 and 1761 a series of letters written by an imaginary Chinese traveler based in London named Lien Chi Altangi was published in “The Public Ledger” magazine of London. The actual author was an Irishman named Oliver Goldsmith who used the perspective of an outsider from China to comment on and satirize the life and manners of the city. Goldsmith later achieved fame with his novel “The Vicar of Wakefield” and his play “She Stoops to Conquer”. 1

The letters were collected and released in book form in 1762 under the title “The Citizen of the World: or, Letters from a Chinese Philosopher, Residing in London, to His Friends in the East “. The seventh letter from Lien Chi Altangi included an instance of the adage: 2

Our greatest glory is, not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.

A different phrasing of the maxim was included in the twenty-second letter:

True magnanimity consists not in NEVER falling, but in RISING every time we fall.

QI has located no substantive evidence that the ancient sage Confucius constructed this saying in either form, and QI believes that Goldsmith crafted it. However, the context of these simulated exotic letters led many readers to believe that the author was relaying aphorisms from China. Indeed, the introductory note for the seventh letter specifically referred to Confucius:

The Editor thinks proper to acquaint the reader, that the greatest part of the following letter seems to him to be little more than a rhapsody of sentences borrowed from Confucius, the Chinese philosopher.

By 1801 an edition of “The Miscellaneous Works of Oliver Goldsmith” included the letters that were originally ascribed to Lien Chi Altangi. Hence, the words were properly credited to Goldsmith. 3

Yet, by 1831 the saying had been reassigned to Confucius. In later years, the phrasing evolved, and the adage was attributed to a variety of individuals including Ralph Waldo Emerson. In modern times, there is evidence that both Vince Lombardi and Nelson Mandela used the expression. Details for these citations are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Our Greatest Glory Is Not in Never Falling, But in Rising Every Time We Fall

Notes:

  1. The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature (Third edition), Entry: The Citizen of the World, Oxford University Press, Oxford Reference Online. (Accessed May 26, 2014)
  2. 1762, The Citizen of the World: or, Letters from a Chinese Philosopher, Residing in London, to His Friends in the East by Lien Chi Altangi (Oliver Goldsmith), Letter VII and Letter XXII, Printed for George and Alex. Ewing, Dublin, Ireland. (ECCO TCP: Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Text Creation Partnership) link link link
  3. 1801, The Miscellaneous Works of Oliver Goldsmith, Volume 3 of 4, Letter VII, Quote Page 21, Letter XXI, Quote Page 75, Printed for J. Johnson, G. and J. Robinson, W. J. and J. Richardson, et al, Printed by Nichols and Son, Red Lion Passage, Fleet Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link